If you’re making a list of subjects that seem worthy of a full-length documentary, hot dog carts rank somewhere between paper clips and folding chairs. There doesn’t seem to be much to say on the topic. Dog Days proves that assumption to be incorrect, though. The film is a surprisingly engaging documentary about people who operate hot dog carts and the bizarrely complex limitations put on them in one major American city.
Filmmakers Laura Waters Hinson and Kasey Kirby take us to Washington, D.C., where many street corners play home to a tiny food cart that allows workers or passersby to grab a quick bite to eat. Some corners have more than one cart. But there’s a problem. The city has declared that carts must be stored overnight in a location where they can be monitored. In order to get a discount on the storage fee, food cart owners have to buy merchandise from a pre-approved distributor. This means that a majority of carts are selling the exact same items purchased from the exact same source: hot dogs, chips, candy, and soda. Running a food stand is, as you might expect, not the most lucrative job in the world, so proprietors’ hands are tied. They can pay more and sell whatever they want, or conserve money and offer a homogenized selection.
The film looks at this situation from the viewpoint of two people. Siyone is a single mother of four who came to America from East Africa. She gets no financial help from her ex-husband, and so her little cart, which she has operated for 25 years, is her only source of income. Coite is a former industrial engineer who lost his job following 2009’s economic crash. Despite not knowing how to cook, he has a dream to open a business that will provide different, more exotic food items to hot dog vendors at a reasonable price. Siyone is the first person to take a chance on his creations. Coite has a large challenge to face: the city, unable to figure out a way to regulate food carts, has had a multi-year ban on issuing new licenses. To keep his business afloat, Coite joins a coalition aimed at increasing the number of entrepreneurs allowed to sell food on the street. Another threat to his business, and the business of all hot dog cart owners, is the increasing number of mobile food trucks, which peddle every sort of cuisine imaginable, without most of the restrictions placed on street vendors.
Dog Days is a fascinating look at capitalism at its least successful. Theoretically, anyone who wants to buy a food cart should able to get a license, sell whatever he wants to make, and stand or fall based on the public’s interest in the product. It’s more complicated than that in D.C., though. Licensed vendors are put in a situation where it’s often more financially viable to offer the same goods the vendor a block away is selling than to offer something original. There is little motivation for the city government to figure out workable regulations; brick-and-mortar restaurants don’t want hot dog stands or food trucks harming their businesses, and they hold some influence. With the ban on vending licenses creating an insufficient number of potential merchants who can buy his sandwiches, a guy like Coite is limited in how much his business can grow. It all seems to run counter to the “American dream” that capitalism is based upon, and Dog Days does an effective job of showing how the small businessman suffers as a result.
The documentary is short (only about 75 minutes), and there are times one wishes the cameras would roll a little longer than they do, most notably during what appear to be some contentious meetings urging the city to figure its regulations out. By and large, though, Dog Days works because it shows us this madness from the perspective of Siyone and Coite, two people who appear sincere, ambitious, and likable. We root for them as they work their way through the morass of bureaucratic complications. It seems unfair that they should struggle as much as they do. Who ever would have guessed selling a little food on a street corner could be so difficult?
Dog Days is currently on the festival circuit and will screen at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 4th and 7th. For more information about future screenings, please visit the official website.